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The years immediately preceding those represented in these journals were, as the author once remarked, "the consolidation of what later became known as the Beat Generation, in terms of the initial writing and many major works." Jack Kerouac had been writing "exhaustively," having completed On the Road, Visions of Cody, and The Subterraneans, and begun Book of Dreams, Some of the Dharma, Maggie Cassidy, and Visions of Gerard. William S. Burroughs had started putting on paper some of his first routines, including "The Talking Asshole" and "Dr. Benway." Gregory Corso had begun the poems in his first collection, The Vestal Lady on Brattle.
And Allen Ginsberg had emerged "out of a slough of despond, " several years beyond his outpatient days at the Psychiatric Institute, had worked in market research, and had recently, since mid-1953, been making a modest living as copyboy for the New York World-Telegram. He and Kerouac and Burroughs had experienced the "psychedelic amusements" of peyote; Kerouac had introduced him to Buddhism; and he had begun reading numerous volumes on Chinese and Japanese art at the New York Public Library.
Ginsberg and Burroughs had edited the latter's 1953 correspondence for part of what would be published as their Yage Letters, as well as the manuscript of the later book Queer. The poet had finished his "preliminary, early" verse volumes, The Gates of Wrath and Empty Mirror, and gone on to larger works, including that manifesto on the independence of the imagination "The Green Automobile." At this time, however, as he would proclaim on the 1956 dedication page ofHowland Other Poems, "All these books" of the Beat writers, excepting Kerouac's first novel, were "published in Heaven." For in spite of his characteristically determined efforts as amateur agent for the works of his friends, Ginsberg had succeeded in getting only Burroughs' Junky published, "under degrading circumstances as a paperback side-by-side with a narcotic agent's book on being a narc." And of his own verse efforts, "I hadn't written anything that good, certainly nothing striking enough to put out in New York as an unknown writer-though Williams thought he could do something."
In the fall of 1953, less than a year before these journals begin, Allen Ginsberg was sharing his New York apartment with William S. Burroughs. Burroughs was in love with him, wrenchingly. Ginsberg himself had begun to despair of his workaday market research-copyboy existence, as well as of his limited results in getting friends published. Consequently, he decided to leave New York and go off to Mexico, or "out into the world," planning thence to visit Neal Cassady and, eventually, Europe. Cassady had often invited Ginsberg to stay with him at home in San Jose, and so in June 1954, six months after departing New York, Ginsberg crossed the border back into the United States. It was his first time in California, a land he'd read of in Kerouac's manuscripts and letters. With a sense of foreboding about American militarism (as expressed in the closing of "Siesta in Xbalba"), a "happy, open feeling" at finally getting to California, and the recognition (also expressed in "Siesta") of a "future, unimaginable God" — the future itself as a god — he returned to a new part of his native land.
His weeks at the Cassady household, as the early pages of these journals painfully and vividly show, were no worse than might have been expected. Ginsberg's attachment to Cassady was perhaps as strong as Burroughs' to Ginsberg; he'd been in love with Neal since their first meeting, eight years before. They'd had an on-again, off-again involvement, but in the intervening years Cassady's situation had changed dramatically: he was now not only a husband but the father of three small children.
Neal now remained typically though irregularly aloof. Ginsberg, full of anguish, having no job, knowing no one else in San Jose, turned — fortunately for us — to his journals: they were his friend, counselor, psychotherapist, profession ... as well as his composition book. He entered poem after poem, prose passage after prose passage: the frequent crossings-out echo his torment. When on an August morning his dream of an erotic encounter with Neal at last began to come true, Carolyn Cassady discovered Ginsberg, fully clothed, making love to Neal in Allen's bed. Within days, Allen had packed his bags and was delivered to San Francisco by his outraged hostess, who handed the virtually indigent poet twenty dollars. Ginsberg, who later called this rift a "two-day upheaval," continued to see Neal fairly often in the days that followed as Cassady stopped in town on railroad work. In that twomonth San Jose interval, full of romantic conflict, Ginsberg had written some of his finest love poems of the period, including "Song" and "Love Poem on Theme by Whitman."
Ginsberg entered San Francisco with little money and, outside of a letter from William Carlos Williams introducing him to Kenneth Rexroth, few personal contacts or occupational prospects. Thus as San Francisco journal entries commence, Ginsberg, from an inexpensive room at the Hotel Marconi, near the intersection of Columbus and Broadway, declared himself "Back alone in a Hotel and once again the great battle for survival ... and no job [in the] offing."
Yet despite the apparent odds, Ginsberg "almost immediately" landed a market research position with Towne-Oller Associates, and equally quickly found a girlfriend, Sheila Williams. Soon he joined her and her small child in a large Pine Street apartment on Nob Hill, "which was the classy area, overlooking San Francisco's downtown valley and the Drake Hotel." Twentytwo years old (six younger than Ginsberg), Sheila was a small brunette who by day wrote advertising copy for the May Company, a large San Francisco department store. By night, she was a jazz singer; musicians Paul Desmond and Joe Albany were among her friends.